“He had just helped bring down Apartheid with Nelson Mandela, when I first met Nobel Prize Winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1994,” remembers Alan Blankstein, award-winning author and filmmaker. “He stunned me by bounding out of the door that had separated us, to embrace my colleague Nancy Shin and me. He held up a can of Coke (the soft drink maker had joined the boycott that crippled the South African Apartheid Regime) and smiled toward the cameras that flashed photos of us together. I’d expected a much more traditional, or at least fatigued man, especially after having faced down 4 decades of ruthless and brutal destruction of his people.”
Blankstein recalls learning one of the secrets in this icon’s arsenal in combatting perhaps the most heinous and racist regime to reign in any modern-day country. After decades of working with and observing “The Arch,” at many birthday celebrations; Archbishop Tutu’s 50th wedding anniversary in Soweto; and the launch of his new Foundation, Blankstein observed: “It was his joy, humility, and unmitigated, focused sense of hope and faith that enabled him to prevail.”
In concert with the Arch’s courage, Tutu did not wish to “win” in order to oppress the oppressor. As he wrote in the foreword of Blankstein’s book with Pedro Noguera, ‘Excellence through Equity’, ” [This Work] aligns with our own most highly held tradition of Ubuntu: ‘I am because you are.’ This view of a united community was a saving grace in South Africa.”
The “Arch” shared often with Blankstein, that had the South African ANC simply sought retribution under any name (e.g. equity), they would not have had one of the only peaceful transitions of colonial power to majority rule in history. “It would have instead been a bloodbath,” Tutu shared.
Moreover, Archbishop Tutu created and led the excruciatingly painful Truth and Reconciliation Commission created to surface and address crimes of the past in a manner that would encourage a brighter future. Doing so allowed a fresh start and a new system. Changing the players on top of the old system wasn’t sufficient for Tutu.
As Archbishop Tutu further wrote in the foreword: “We didn’t struggle in order just to change the complexion of those who sit in the Union Buildings; it was to change the quality of our community and society.”
“As I work with educational leaders in creating equitable environments now, it’s toward a win-win system” states Blankstein. “It’s hard as Americans to wrap our heads around that, but it’s the way forward and out of our twin crisis of Covid and racial conflict. Examples of success are few and growing, but are not yet given sufficient. Redefining ‘Success’ in ways in which the vast majority of people ‘win,’ is the next road we need to travel if we are to survive as a society.”
May the light of “The Arch” continue to shine and illuminate our way forward!
Alan is Senior Editor, lead contributor, and/or author of 18 books, including Excellence Through Equity with Pedro Noguera, and the best-selling Failure Is Not an Option®: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools, which received the Book of the Year award from Learning Forward. Alan has contributed to broadcasts on NPR, PBS, ABC Radio, and written some 20 Op-Ed pieces and Articles for leading education print including Education Week, Ed Leadership The School Administrator, Executive Educator, and The Principal.
A former “high-risk” youth, Alan began his career in education as a music teacher. He worked for Phi Delta Kappa, March of Dimes, and Solution Tree, which he founded in 1987 and directed for 12 years while launching Professional Learning Communities beginning in the late 1980s. He then Formed the HOPE Foundation, while advocating for young people via district-wide reform and keynotes for virtually every major U.S. Ed Org, and throughout the UK, Africa, and the Middle East.
Alan has served on the Harvard International Principals Centers advisory board, and the Jewish Child Care Agency, where he once was a youth in residence.
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